The Best Music of 2018, Album of the Year: Bruce Springsteen - Springsteen On Broadway; Plus My Picks for the Top Ten Starring The Bottle Rockets, Rita Coolidge, Mark Knopfler, Little Steven, Jimmy LaFave, Nellie McKay, Kacey Musgraves, Pistol Annies, Eddi Reader, Swing Out Sister ...and Many More
Rob DeMartin/Courtesy of the artist
Looking over the list of albums, which were released in 2018 (that I was interested in), there is only one thing I know for sure and that is that one person could never listen to them all, at least I couldn't. So, the albums shown below are the ones that managed to make it through the milieu to make me the craziest this year.
My album of the year follows, with my picks for top ten after that. Please enjoy reading about and listening to what follows. And I wish you a safe, happy and healthy 2019. Happy New Year!
Click on album names to listen.
Album of the Year: Bruce Springsteen - Springsteen On Broadway
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Bruce Springsteen's one man show on Broadway was unprecedented for a rock musician. There have been hit shows based on an artist's music; Mamma Mia! using the music of Abba set the mold. Movin' Out with the music of Billy Joel and Beautiful, the Carole King musical, are two examples. But, Springsteen On Broadway was different. Springsteen's tours with the E Street Band were already legendary and he would routinely sell out large halls and stadiums wherever he went. The show offered Springsteen up close and personal for 2.5 hours of stories and songs. Armed with only a microphone, acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica, Springsteen entertained the audience for five shows per week, ringing up sold-out houses for sixteen months. Springsteen On Broadway's box office receipts exceeded $100 million.
You don't have to be a mathematician to know that this show played mainly to the well-heeled crowd. When the run ended, a film of the show went live on Netflix, available for anyone to watch for the price of a streaming subscription. Alternately, the complete show audio was released on a two CD set entitled Springsteen On Broadway. Fans and non-fans have been obsessed about this show for its duration, and that combined with the expansive window into his life makes this release my Album of the Year.
The precursor to this show had to be Springsteen's autobiography, especially the audio version which was read by Bruce himself. Plus, he had previously done a few shows solo acoustic. And during his 45+ year career, he had made an art of storytelling, especially during songs like "Growin' Up". The high drama of his stories mixed with his music was not lost on him.
The Netflix show and soundtrack CD package includes sixteen songs Springsteen performed solo except for two that featured his wife Patty Scialfa on background vocals. Read the complete review.
"I've never held an honest job in my entire life. I've never done any hard labor. I've never worked 9-5. I've never worked five days a week until right until now (laughter) I don't like it. I've never seen the inside of a factory and yet it's all I've ever written about. Standing before you is a man who's become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something that he has had absolutely no personal experience. I made it all up, that's how good I am."Bit Logic
- Bruce Springsteen from interlude, during "Growing Up" from Springsteen On Broadway
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I think I've known of The Bottle Rockets for a long time, but I've never actually listened to them... until now; my loss. The Bottle Rockets have a strong voice in front man Brian Henneman (vocals, guitar) and they play country tinged roots rock of a most infectious sort. The songs are wordy but well written. According to Henneman, “If it’s about anything at all, it’s an album about existing in this modern world. Trying to dodge depression and anger. These songs are views from the moments when you’re mostly succeeding at it.” Bit Logic (their 13th) is an album that grabs you and won't let go.
Safe in the Arms of Time
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Safe in the Arms of Time by Rita Coolidge sounds as if it might have been recorded in the seventies alongside those great sounding LPs on which she first became known for her work as a backing vocalist. The solo albums that followed had that magic as well. It's no accident that this new album sounds that way; they made it at Sunset Sound in L.A. where Coolidge recorded her first solo albums. Producer Ross Hogarth did a stellar job and the band they assembled performed impeccably with some of the best guitar work that you might want to hear. Guests abound on this album in both performing and songwriting capacities. Coolidge cowrote three songs including one with Keb’ Mo’, which was also a gorgeous vocal duet between the two.
Down The Road Wherever (Deluxe Edition)
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Mark Knopfler made his name and his fortune as the lead singer/ guitarist of Dire Straits, playing large venues and selling millions of records. All of which has afforded him to have a life in which he records when he wants to, tours when he wants to, and writes the type of music he wants to. Evidenced by now nine solo albums, he prefers unhurried singer-songwriter style music. The main ingredients are Knopfler's mellifluous voice and his amazing lead guitar (albeit in smaller doses). According to Knopfler's PR, "The album stays true to the folk and roots-inflected ambience of his solo material, but introduces new elements of jazz, funk and even a hint of the rockier leanings of earlier days." Down The Road Wherever is comfort food for the soul, and in these times we need it more than ever.
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By rights, the single disc studio album Soulfire should be appearing in this space. “Little Steven” Van Zandt is best know as a singer, songwriter, arranger, guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, actor in The Sopranos and his own Netflix series Lillyhammer, and radio programmer on SiriusXM's Underground Garage and Outlaw Country. What readers might not know is that Van Zandt's musical mentality was forged in the crucible of 60s soul and rock. Van Zandt's formative years were spent listening to AM radio and playing guitar in bar bands around Asbury Park, NJ with his pal Bruce Springsteen. Van Zandt not only produced the first three albums by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, but he wrote a lot of the material and arranged the horn section. A number of the songs he wrote for them appear on Soulfire. On the studio album, those songs were faithfully performed but seemed to be lacking something; that something was Southside. Instead, Little Steven sings lead on those fine classics. On the new triple live album, these songs take on a life of their own when played by this amazing fifteen piece band lead by Little Steven, whose vocals have never sounded better. In fact, that magic of well performed and well recorded live music permeates every track of Soulfire Live! Never mind that the third disc is essentially a bonus containing guest appearances from the world tour by Bruce Springsteen, Richie Sambora, Peter Wolf, and Jerry Miller (of Moby Grape). This is one of the best live albums and the music it contains surveys the very bedrock of rock and roll.
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One of the qualities that Jimmy LaFave's eighteenth album Peace Town has in common with all of his others is an uncommon feel for arrangement, so much so that he makes cover versions, even familiar ones, every bit as much his own as the songs that he wrote. This talent goes hand in hand with his production skill to record music so utterly listenable that to attach a label to it would be just too limiting. Peace Town consists of a combination of songs Lafave wrote, songs by Texas songwriters, songs written by fellow Oklahoma natives, and other cover songs. One can not overestimate the value of LaFave's choices of what songs to cover. You can tell a lot about a person from their choice of cover material and LaFave is a perfect example. In addition to LaFave's vocals and guitar, he used two rhythm sections, both of which were rock solid. I also want to single out the electric guitar work by Jesse LaFave and John Inmon, they are amazing players. Finally, I must say that I am blown away by the keyboards of Stefano Intellisano, especially on piano. Their playing is a big factor contributing to the excellence of the album. Overall, it must be said that based on these twenty tracks, LaFave was working at the very top of his game. Considering his medical condition, it's a blessing that Jimmy LaFave was able to leave us with this masterpiece. Read the complete review.
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It doesn't get any simpler than this, or at least that's the way it sounds. A lone voice, subdued backing, and a set of songs that consist of pop and jazz standards, some not so obvious. Nellie McKay has such a sweet and precise voice that combined with her sense of melody and her musicianship render Sister Orchid completely irresistible. There is a context for the selection of the material she sings, but based only upon this record, I couldn't exactly say what it is. Seeing her play live recently, a performance that included the first seven tracks on this album, these tunes fit in perfectly with the others in her set and although I still couldn't tell you the context for it all, let me assure you that there is one. It may be part of free association on McKay's part, sometimes it's hard to tell her seriousness from her sarcasm. In any case, she is a total delight. Here is one other interpretation of Sister Orchid suggested by the liner notes. "Conjuring the image of a lonely all night truck stop along highway 1 on the California coast, all but lost in the fog that comes creeping along the shoreline...this album speaks of the night, the outsider, the plaintive wail of those lost at sea. Sister Orchid was conceived in solitude, executed in darkness - it comes from a place of quiet, a world of low lights and cool drinks." In case I was unclear, I love this album.
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Kacey Musgraves' career exists on a fine line of achieving mainstream success while maintaining artistic integrity, which includes some decidedly non-mainstream interests. She has made two hit major label albums plus one Christmas album that was also well received. Now her fourth album, Golden Hour, threatens to become her most successful album yet in terms of both art and commerce. From Musgraves' PR we learned that "Musgraves describes her new LP as having a 'trippy' twist, citing the Bee Gees, Sade, and Neil Young as influences. And while she’s often celebrated for her clever wordplay and witty turns of phrase about small-town life, Musgraves says she avoided wrapping every lyric 'up in a little bow' in favour of more direct, reflective songwriting." As I construct this Top Ten, I wanted to include many more albums than there was room for (more about that below). But, there are a few albums that were "untouchable" in every version of the list and Golden Hour was one of them. Musgrave released this last March and I still can't get enough of it.
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Pistol Annies are either a country super group or the ultimate female trio. Actually, they are both. Pistol Annies consist of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Their release of Interstate Gospel in November, their 3rd, presented an interesting dilemma. There were not only too many good ones to easily formulate a Top Ten list, there was an astounding number of terrific albums by country singer-songwriters. Ultimately, Pistol Annies took the spot with their brand of country rock and great vocal harmonies. The musicians, songwriting (by the Annies), and production all excel in the service of a new old-fashioned fun sounding record. As their PR described it, "Moving from celebratory anthems, classic country storytelling and vibey swagger, the Grammy-nominated trio are back and sounding Annie-er than ever."
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On the release of Cavalier, Eddi Reader celebrates a career that spans forty years. I've been following her since Fairground Attraction (1988) and most of her records were not released in the U.S. so this required watching the import racks. I did have one opportunity to see her live. It was at the Cutting Room in NYC where she and frequent collaborator Boo Hewerdine along with Darden Smith (who had earlier recorded a album with Hewerdine) all sat on stools with acoustic guitars. The format was a sing around and when each took a turn they were supported by the other two forming a terrific acoustic group sound. It was an amazing show, but I digress. Cavalier has been called a creative peak in an already superlative career. It has new songs, it has traditional songs, and they're all recorded with what's been called the cream of Scottish musicians. I've long been of the mind that new Eddi Reader albums are cause to celebrate, but Cavalier really is something special.
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New albums are few and far between for Swing Out Sister. Although Corrine Drewery's voice hasn't changed, it's as irresistible as ever, their music never stops evolving. For the record, this is their tenth album and it's been a ten year wait since their last. The music on Almost Persuaded is informed by the acoustic tours they performed around the time of their last record. As much as I've listened to Almost Persuaded I don't know quite what to call it. It might be a jazz album but it doesn't sound like one; Swing Out Sister has described Almost Persuaded as “cinematic soul jazz.” There are many influences but the difference is that this time they essentially made the record in public sharing their progress with their backers on PledgeMusic. "Half-finished sketches, roads not taken (hint: there’ll be many, there always are..), ideas being polished and, in some cases, roughed up a little. Some good things being wilfully (sic) disregarded, and others turning up seemingly fully-formed out of nowhere. That’s how it usually is when we’re embroiled in the making of a thing..." - Andy Connell. Regardless of what we call it, this music gives me what I listen to music for. I hope that Swing Out Sister never stops doing what they do.
30 More: These excellent albums coulda woulda shoulda been included in my top ten (if there were more room). Click on album title to stream.
For Inside Out, the Average White Band recorded part of it in the studio and part of it live, hence the name. Representing their first new studio recordings in fifteen years, they included some cool new covers, while the live tracks reflect their current arrangements and personnel.
Earth Wind and Wonder
Saxophonist Don Braden and his band use the music of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire as a jumping off point for a fine jazz outing that's both accessible and challenging at the same time. Read the complete review.
Electric guitars galore including some very nice work on the pedal steel combines with Canty's irresistible voice on one of the year's best country singer-songwriter albums.
This very familiar voice (Ace, Squeeze, and Mike and the Mechanics, to name a few) is surrounded by an excellent band of supporting players in the service of some most agreeable tunes.
She Remembers Everything (Deluxe Edition)
A more than worthy follow up to her triple Grammy winning last album The River & the Thread (2014). Her voice may not be the only thing sounding familiar as Cash surveys the various styles that have characterized her forty year career.
The first time I saw Shemekia Copeland sing, it was the new millennium. WXPN still called their annual festival "Singer-Songwriter Weekend" and I believed I had just seen the second coming of Aretha. Daughter of bluesman Johnny Copeland, Shemekia's 2018 release America's Child is a blues album as loaded with current topics as it is with top flight guitar work.
Look Now (Deluxe Edition)
The comparisons with Painted From Memory are apt in the sense that these twelve songs are mostly elegant word driven pop, not to mention that Burt Bacharach lent assistance on two tracks. To close the deal, Look Now would need to have some of the same staying power as that classic, but it's too soon to tell.
Jeffrey Foucault's voice goes down easy, as you get lost in the vibe created by the mix of acoustic and pedal steel guitars on this fine set of singer-songwriter country.
Living with Your Ghost
Sounding at times like an Australian Bonnie Raitt, Kara Grainger fronts an excellent ensemble on this her fourth album. With one track sporting a guest vocal by Ivan Neville, this is a record that gets better the more you listen to it.
The Blues Is Alive and Well
Buddy Guy has been playing and writing the blues for so long that he has either taught or influenced just about every player out there who wields a guitar. His albums are always enjoyable and like the title says, The Blues Is Alive and Well.
Greatest Other People's Hits
Even though he's spent most of the last decade using his given name Wesley Stace, he resumed the JWH moniker for these terrifically rendered and well chosen covers with many guest appearances. He had me with The Strawbs' "Benedictus" featuring Eric Bazilian, not to mention two Springsteen songs.
The Eclipse Sessions
Spending time with a John Hiatt record is a little like hanging out with an old friend. Hiatt is firing on all cylinders on The Eclipse Sessions, which makes it one of the best albums you'll hear this year.
The Waking Hours
Matthew Perryman Jones rocks out a bit on The Waking Hours, but as usual, he is all about the songwriting, which is impeccable. Read the live review.
It all came together beautifully on Uncovered Soul, the adept cover choices, the songwriting, the performances, the production, and most of all the jazzy, yet soulful voice of Kathy Kosins. Read the complete review.
For Castles, Lissie wrote the most personal album of her career, with the songs basically chronicling a relationship. She also made it tuneful and as such may have come up with her best album yet. Read the live review.
Although Kathy Mattea is one of country's best singer-songwriters, Pretty Bird focuses on her skills as a singer on a superb set of cover songs, most of them rendered simply with just voice and acoustic guitar.
Girl Going Nowhere
Ashley McBryde's debut album Girl Going Nowhere turned a lot of heads in Nashville this year. A singer-songwriter equally at home with ballads and rockers, McBryde possesses a voice that drips country and she was also the beneficiary of the most buzz I've heard in a very long time, all well deserved.
Singer-songwriter Lori McKenna's 11th album, The Tree, received a gorgeous yet understated production by Dave Cobb, giving it a most agreeable combination of acoustic guitars, bass, and drums. Her carefully drawn lyrics, her subjects, and her expressive voice make this album a treat.
If You Really Want
If You Really Want pairs Raul Midon with the Metropole Orkest. They flesh out some of Midon's most classic melodies in what may be his best album yet.
Ashley Monroe has been one of Nashville's best singer-songwriters for some time. For her third album, Sparrow, she changed producers to Dave Cobb, who pulled out all the stops to make this one off the best sounding records you will hear.
You're Driving Me Crazy
As someone who could never get enough of Van Morrison's jazz and blues albums of last year, I was more than excited to see that he had joined with jazz organ/Hammond B3 specialist Joey DeFrancesco and his ensemble to make You're Driving Me Crazy. It wasn't just me. AllMusic.com said, "Of the three successive recordings done in this way, this one stands head and shoulders above for its inspired performances and choices of material."
Don't You Feel My Leg (The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker)
Sounding at times like early Bonnie Raitt playing the late night club circuit, Maria Muldaur sings the music of Luisa "Blue Lu" Barker with all the piano based blues and jazz that the material needs. That these songs are suggestive is precisely the point; "The Georgia Grind" isn't about coffee, if you catch my drift.
Boasting some insanely good guitar work, both lead and pedal steel, Sarah Shook leads the Disarmers like a bar band, only they play around the world and they just might be the best country band that you've never heard of. This should have been huge.
Caitlyn Smith is a contract songwriter (writing songs for others) who is singing her own compositions on Starfire. I would say that on this album songwriting is the main thing, but that would give short shrift to Smith's excellent vocals and to the phenomenal sound of this album as produced by Paul Moak. Read the live review.
The Smithereens Cover Tunes Collection
Well traveled New Jersey rockers, The Smithereens, went through their vault and assembled a generous LP of covers that is a delight from beginning to end. They used band favorites (including some rarities) from 60s radio hits to artists like The Beatles, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, to name just a few, who are each represented by multiple songs.
Record is a bit more electronic rock than most are used to hearing from Tracey Thorn. Even though it's been many years since Thorn and Ben Watt put Everything But The Girl on hiatus, I've had the thought that this album might reflect where that group might be today, but Thorn herself describes it thusly: "If 2010's Love and It's Opposite was my mid-life album - full of divorce and hormones - then this album represents that sense of liberation that comes in the aftermath..."
Soul Side of Town
Tower Of Power, who rarely releases new albums, has given us reason to be joyful. Soul Side of Town offers up a whole new batch of original tunes, played and sung by their current lineup, which includes a new lead singer and a significant update to their arrangements and sound.
Muscle Shoals: Small Town Big Sound
During the 1950s and 1960s, a phenomena called the Muscle Shoals Sound became a thing as artists from all over the world came there to record. Whatever that special something is, this album pays tribute to it with iconic material, amazing performers, and equally mind blowing production. Artists on this record include Chris Stapleton, Willie Nelson, and Lee Ann Womack, to Demi Lovato, Steven Tyler, Keb Mo, Grace Potter and Aloe Blacc. If you love music, you won't want to miss this one.
Lindsey Webster is a singer-songwriter who excels at contemporary jazz (smooth jazz, as it's now called). On Love Inside, her third album, she continues the chart mastery that her previous albums and singles have enjoyed with a set of twelve irresistible originals that feature guest appearances by Rick Braun and Norman Brown.
Back Being Blue
Although it's been a good eleven years since her last album, country singer-songwriter Kelly Willis hasn't exactly been sitting on her hands what with raising a family and recording as a duo with her singing and songwriting husband Bruce Robison (who also produced this record). With top musicians and six Willis originals, Back Being Blue has a wonderful sound, engaging material, and Willis' amazing voice.
Note: It was a bit painful to narrow down the above section from the forty I listed over the last few years. Instead of mentioning the many good albums omitted, I will simply illustrate an example of how this narrowing can be useful.
The great Willie Nelson released two albums in 2018, the (now almost obligatory) album of standards, My Way, and the regular album, Last Man Standing. It was initially troublesome to exclude them, but one listen to Nelson's cover version of Bob Dylan's "Serve Somebody" on the Muscle Shoals tribute reveals that this one track cuts to shreds anything that was on the two "proper" albums.